I am the keeper of the mountains.
Love them or leave them,
just don’t destroy them.
If you dare to be one too, call…
-Larry Gibson

This past week I visited Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County West Virginia with a group of students from Dalton State College and a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers from the Ohio Meadville District. The visit was part of a coal county pilgrimage organized by the Rev. Rose Edington and the Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers at the UU Church in Charleston, WV.

We were supposed to meet Larry Gibson, a well-known mountain top removal activist, but he died on September 9th of a heart attack, less than a month before our trip.   Instead,  Julian Martin and Wess Harris–both authors, historians and environmental activists–showed us around the mountain ridge where Larry’s family–the Stanley clan–have lived and been buried for over 200 years and shared the legacy that Larry’s leadership created.
Until 1986, the ridge was overshadowed by the surrounding tree-covered peaks of Kayford mountain.  Today, what used to be a low ridge is now the highest peak, and the views upward have been replaced by views downward toward bare dirt and earth-moving equipment. The Stanley family ridge is also being coveted for the coal that lies underneath and they have been offered large sums of money for it.  An aerial view of the mountain shows that the green ridge is surrounded by swaths of raw dirt.


Without money, Larry found other ways to preserve his family’s land. He couldn’t actually live on the mountain, because there is no drinkable water, but he built a cabin and encouraged other family members to do the same and to spend as much time as possible there.
He built a visitor’s center and arranged tours so that groups could visit and witness the destruction of the surrounding mountain peaks–one of the few places in Appalachia that can provide such a view without being in some sort of aircraft.

 

After the desecration of his family’s cemetery when nearby coal extraction intruded on his family’s land, he (and others) tried to get legislation passed to preserve family cemeteries…but to no avail.

Larry faced personal danger as he took his stand.  He received personal threats. His cabin is riddled with bullet holes.  Two of his dogs were killed.  The buildings on the family’s ridge were vandalized.  Supporters raised $10,000 to install a security system.

Like many activists in the spotlight, (Rosa Parks comes to mind) Larry allowed himself to be the public personality that served as the lightning rod for an issue–in this case mountain top removal.  But his death has revealed that there are a network of activists dedicated to continuing his work.

As we Unitarian Universalist leaders look for ways to lead change on social and environmental issues, we can learn some good lessons from Larry Gibson.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • Great reflection. My kids are still talking about the service trip we did, and our visit to Kayford Mountain. We are so sad about the Larry’s death, and honor the amazing work he did with his passion.